Family History – Getting Started

A guide to where to start with your family history and the main types of record to help you.

The first thing to do, is to gather together as much information as you can from present day family members and any family documents you have at home.  Record what you already know such as names, dates and place of birth, marriage and death, then use this to work backwards and fill in any gaps.

Civil Registration of births, marriages and deaths: A national system of registration was introduced in England and Wales on 1 July 1837.  Search the indexes online, e.g. www.gro.gov.uk or www.freebmd.org.uk. Order copy certificates from www.gro.gov.uk or the local register office.

Church registers: as far back as 1538 (and up to the present day), church records that provide information about when people were alive through baptism, marriage and burial registers.  Registers for Anglican churches in Derbyshire can be consulted via Ancestry up to 1916 for baptisms, 1932 for marriages and 1991 for burials.  Free access to this site is available from all Derbyshire libraries.  See guide to Parish Registers Online. Before 1733, almost all of the entries in the church registers are recorded in Latin.

Similar registers are also available for a large number of non-conformist churches. Some are available via Find My Past (also be accessible for free in Derbyshire libraries), with others available on microfilm or as original documents in the archive search room.

Consult the Parish Register List and Non-Conformist Register List for details of the records available.  For more recent registers added to the church collections, please search the online catalogue using the reference number given in the summary guides (Parish Guide and Non-Conformist Guide) or by searching in the Title field as follows:

  • Church of England: place name and the word parish, e.g. Alfreton Parish
  • Non-conformist: place name and the word church (or chapel if applicable), e.g. Gresley church.

For some churchyards and civil cemeteries, local groups have produced Memorial Inscriptions, recording the details of memorials and gravestones in and outside churches, these are often useful for identifying family relationships.

Censusa national census has been taken every ten years since 1801, and from 1841 detailed returns listing individuals have survived.  The returns are available online (for example on Ancestry and Find My Past) up to 1911, and microfilm copies are available to 1901 at the record office.  From 1851, the returns include place of birth, and more detail is added over time making them very useful for helping to trace ancestors who may have moved around.  Depending on the date and place of residence, for some ancestors you may be able to identify the house they lived in, but house numbers and even street names are quite uncommon in most rural and semi-rural towns.

Bishops’ Transcripts: in 1598, parishes were ordered to send an annual copy of all baptisms, marriages and burials for the year to the church authorities.  For some parishes, the ‘Bishop’s Transcripts’, or BTs were made until the late 19th century and can be very useful when the original registers are hard to read or if a register is missing.  Both BTs and parish registers can contain entries not found in the other.  Derbyshire was part of the Diocese of Lichfield until the mid-19th century, so the BTs are held at Staffordshire Record Office.

Cemetery records: copies of cemetery records from 1855 to the 1990s are available on microfilm and DVD.  The registers tend to include more information and there is usually a grave register to help identify the location of the grave itself.

Consult the Cemetery Records Guide on our website for a full list of the records available.

Wills and Probate: by at least the 13th century the Church had succeeded in establishing a jurisdiction in testamentary matters, which it retained until the Court of Probate Act 1857.  Most early Derbyshire wills are to be found amongst the records of the Diocese of Lichfield held at Staffordshire Record Office and can be accessed online via Find My Past. One exception was Dale Abbey manorial court which exercised its own probate jurisdiction until 1858.  Wills of persons holding property in more than one diocese were proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), see The National Archives guide to Wills or Administrations before 1858 Guide for more information.

Between 1858 and 1928 wills (and letters of administration to 1875) for many Derbyshire residents were proved by the Derby Probate Registry and copies are available on microfilm or DVD – search the catalogue using the person’s name and reference D96/*.

Wills after 1928 can be ordered online from the Probate Service.

There are also thousands of wills amongst family and estate collections, particularly where they form part of a bundle or series of deeds to prove the title to property.  The best way to search for such records is to search for the individual’s name in the ‘Any Text’ field in the online catalogue.

Guides to doing family history:  there is a lot of information online about how to research your family history, and we have lots of general and specific guides (for example relating to ancestors in particular trades, those who broke the law and those who emigrated) in the local studies library to help as well.

Find out more about your ancestors using records for digging deeper.

A day at the archive issue desk…

Every day the search room staff produce a wide range of documents, differing not only in the information they provide, but also the dates they were created, how and why they were created, how and why they will be used. All documents are collected and returned through the issue desk so we can ensure the best protection and security possible during access. As part of this procedure, all our visitors must order the documents required so that we can retrieve the correct item from the stores, sign to say they have received the document, initial to say they have returned it, and a staff member must sign to say they have returned it to the stores.

The gallery below includes many of the documents that were requested and consulted on one particular day last month (Tuesday 13 October). On that day, we had visits from:

  • a county council colleague working in the legal services department
  • an Australian lady trying to find a photograph (unsuccessfully) and other information (successfully) about a criminal ancestor
  • a medieval historian searching for clues about land ownership in Eggington
  • a budding local historian interested in that peculiarly Derbyshire tradition of well-dressings
  • a second family historian searching for the father’s name of one of her ancestors who was born a bastard in 1818
  • a third family historian endeavouring to discover the exact grave location of an ancestor buried at St Oswald’s church in Ashbourne
  • a National Trust volunteer from Calke Abbey looking for various bits of information relating to the house and the Harpur Crewe family for a new learning resources being developed there.


Not  all our visitors go away satisfied with what they have found out, sometimes because they were expecting to find something else, and sometimes because the records didn’t actually give them an answer at all. However, it is very rare that we have that we have visitors who have not enjoyed the experience of searching through and handling the archives. Often they have to test their skills of reading old handwriting (and the archivist’s skills sometimes too!). Usually they unintentionally discover how different records were created and kept at different times and in different places – for example, it is extremely uncommon to find a record of where in a churchyard a particular grave is located, but there are some churches or vicars that did record this information.

Another day in the life of the issue desk coming next month…